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article imageOp-Ed: Pee, pineapples and the right to freedom of speech

By Andrew John     Oct 7, 2012 in World
If there were just one piece of advice we could give to those who feel offended by perceived insults to their religion it would be this: stop shouting about it.
Christians tend not to shout too loudly if there is a depiction of their revered figure, Jesus of Nazareth. There have been occasions, certainly, when an artist has, in their view, overstepped the mark, such as the famous Piss Christ photograph exhibited in 1987 by the artist and snapper Andres Serrano.
This shows a small plastic crucifix displayed in a glass of the artist’s urine. Christians were rather outraged – especially as Serrano had received US$15,000 for the work from the US’s National Endowment for the Arts.
Another cause célèbre was that in 2005 of the cartoons of Mohammed originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. There were worldwide protests, some of which led to deaths.
But those in favour of free speech responded by reprinting the cartoons. Quite right. The only way to preserve freedom of speech is to continue to test it. If there is something morally wrong with such an action, it will be sorted out in the public square. It will be examined and, if necessary, ridiculed. If the act of publication can be said to be “wrong”, the perpetrators will be placed in the stocks and laughed at as rotten tomatoes are thrown into their faces – metaphorically speaking, of course.
However, such argument never seems to stop those of a religious persuasion – mostly, but not always, Muslims – drawing attention to whatever it is that they perceive has caused offence. They know by now – how could they not? – that kicking up a stink is only going to ensure that the “offending” article – be it Jesus in a pool of pee or a pineapple called Mohammed in a students’ exhibition – will be seen and talked about by more and more people.
Their protest has had the opposite effect: more people than they would have liked now know that Exhibit A exists; more people than they would have liked can probably see a depiction of Exhibit A, because more newspapers and websites are going to reproduce it.
The pineapple called Mohammed appeared last week at the Freshers’ Fayre at Reading University in England. You can read the story here in our Religious News pages.
It was not only Muslims who objected to the idea of having a pineapple exhibited and calling it Mohammed, but the objections have nonetheless drawn more attention to the “offending” fruit than would otherwise have been the case.
Channel 4 documentary
As you will see in that story, the exhibitors of the pineapple make the case that they did it to provoke discussion about blasphemy. They have certainly done that, but the overreaction by oversensitive religionists and no doubt over-politically correct individuals has also taken attention from the debate.
It is unfortunate that stunts – whether with pineapples or glasses of pee – have to be used to provoke such debate, but, on occasions when education and debate have been the main intention, either protests or the threat or protests has put an end to it.
Instance Islam: The Untold Story, which the UK’s Channel 4 broadcast in August this year. However, last month the broadcaster said it would not give a screening of the documentary for “opinion formers” at its London HQ. This was because presenter and writer Tom Holland was threatened with violence.
Once more, the result has been more publicity than would have been the case if things had been left alone.
Muslims – and it is mostly Muslims, although, as we’ve seen, they are not alone – must take heed and know that their religion will come in for more criticism, more ridicule, if they try to censor. Free speech has a way of getting out. There are those who will go out of their way to ensure that what some wish to cloak in secrecy gets dragged into the public square and exposed to the sunlight of scrutiny.
Religionists do themselves no favours by causing a song and dance every time their choice of belief system is ridiculed. Are they not proud of their beliefs? Should they not welcome discussion and opportunities to speak of their sincerely held convictions and tell the world why they are so important to them?
Now I know there is a case to be made for not deliberately offending people’s religion, and that is just a question of common decency. If that’s all you wish to do, why bother?
However, some belief systems, by being scrutinised, will stand or fall by that scrutiny. It is up to them to defend themselves, and public debate is the only way to do that.
But there are those who clearly do not want public debate. Well, let them fight public debate. Let them try to silence those who favour free speech.
And let them, in the process, expose themselves to ever more ridicule.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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